“The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” by Gaito Gazdanov

When Stanley Kubrick lived near Cambridge (or so the story goes), he apparently used to pay English Literature undergraduates to send him summaries of novels so that he could mine for material to be adapted for his movies. His classic films are all based on diverse, and generally superb, works of literature: Lolita; Traumnovelle (which became Eyes Wide Shut); Barry Lyndon; A Clockwork Orange; The Shining….It’d be fascinating to know whether he ever came across A Spectre of Alexander Wolf, as it feels very much like the sort of story he would have turned into a cult classic.

The story begins during the Russian Civil War, with an exhausted sixteen year old narrator who has accidentally been separated from his unit in the Steppe. The boy stumbles across a black mare whose owner has been killed: he has not slept for thirty hours, and is desperately tired. Suddenly, as he is riding along a deserted road, the animal is shot and tumbles to the earth, and the boy hears “the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth.” A second rider appears on a magnificent white horse, and takes aim at the narrator with his rifle. The boy fires his own weapon in instinctive self-defence, and, he believes, kills the soldier. Seizing the white horse he speeds away when he hears the sound of approaching riders, tortured by the idea that he has now become a murderer.

Many years later when he is living in Paris, the narrator stumbles across a novel written by a man called Alexander Wolf, which contains a chapter called “The Adventure in the Steppe”. Eerily, the chapter tells the story of a soldier shot during the Russian civil war in precisely the same circumstances as those experienced by the narrator when he was sixteen. Evidently his victim did not die, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the idea of finding Wolf – the man he still feels as though he murdered. What follows is a terse, unique psychological thriller – at times reminiscent of the Freudian Traumnovelle, whilst also having something of the cool, deadly film noir about it – and as he unfurls the tightly-coiled plot, Gazdanov also finds time to explore the complex interplay of love, death, guilt, and fate.

It is an addictive, dense little volume, and takes on some enormous questions with deft flair and intelligence. Can we ever really avoid our fate? Is life only truly appreciated in the face of death? Is it possible to live with profound guilt and still be happy? Can our physical and mental worlds ever exist in harmony? What does it mean to be in love?

I mention Traumnovelle not just because of the Kubrick idea, but also because there is something unreal – spectral – about every character in the story. The narrator’s lover makes every movement with languid delay; one man is a morphine addict; and the narrator constantly feels as though he is living in some kind of nightmarish fantasy.

I was still unable to rid myself of the impression that this evening stroll had been a patent fantasy, as though in the habitual quiet of my imagination I had been walking around a strange, unfamiliar city, alongside the spectre haunting this long, uninterrupted dream.

There is even a vague suggestion that he and Wolf are one person, or at least Uncanny Freudian doubles in some way – split by that moment when the narrator pulled the trigger: “In other words, the fate of Alexander Wolf interested me because I too, had suffered my whole life from an extraordinarily persistent and indomitable case of split personality, one that I had tried to fight and that had poisoned my happiest hours.”

This hyper-thoughtful prose very deliberately places the physical and psychological at odds with one another – which I would say is one of the novel’s most self-consciously effective flourishes. His mysterious lover “existed independently of her surroundings”; as if her physical and inner lives were somehow disconnected. The narrator talks about being compelled to pursue her in such a way as to render the external circumstances of his life powerless – he talks about the “whole silent melody of skin and muscle” as he hands her into the taxi, a tangibility which exists independently of the fated impulse which forces him to call on her a few days later. Again, it’s dreamlike – bodies moving sluggishly to a rhythm at odds with the intention of the minds controlling them. Limbs and intelligence living in contradiction, but both ultimately controlled by fate: on one level this is how the novel itself operates – beautifully articulated musings on life’s contradictions interspersed with vivid, sensuous descriptions of the world the narrator lives in:

Whenever I opened the window for a moment to flick the ash off my cigarette, the intense patter of raindrops falling on leaves would bore into my ears; there was the smell of earth and damp tree trunks.

Living life versus thinking about what it means to be alive – the two threads are balanced so brilliantly (and perhaps with a touch of the split personality the narrator believes he suffers from) that this operates both as a gripping page turner, and a truly thought-provoking meditation on what it is to be human, and mortal. In a literal sense, it means you experience the kind of physical discombobulation assigned to the characters – wanting to zip through the pages to find out what will happen next, whilst also needing to stop to chew over what’s being said. What a stylish book, beautifully published by Pushkin.

the spectre of alexander wolf

(I should also note that I was prompted to read this novel by an excellent review on Tales from the Reading Room! https://litlove.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/back-to-life/)

“Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees” by Roger Deakin

Reading Notes From Walnut Tree Farm led me, joyfully, to Rogue Male
– one of the best adventure novels I’ve read (and a great movie, too, with Peter O’Toole at his electrifying best). Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees has been similarly lavish in terms of new introductions. I had never heard of the artists David Nash or John Wolseley before, for instance, and am now desperate to see their work in person after Deakin’s tantalizing descriptions. (I may have to wait until Christmas to get my hands on one of the beautiful collaborative books John Wolseley has published in recent years – they’re a bit too dear for an impulse purchase, sadly). In the best way possible, it’s one of those books that makes you wonder what on earth you’ve been looking at all these years – I wanted to absorb every image, and know I will read it many times again, luxuriating in the detail.

Wildwood is divided into four sections (Roots, Sapwood, Driftwood and Heartwood) all of which meander through a series of lightly linked vignettes. The artery running through the book, of course, is bursting with trees. Structured rather like one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s adventures, Deakin takes you from the woodland of his childhood (where the finely named Biology Teacher, Barry Goater, first inspired his love of nature), through the rich, pagan, tree-bound traditions of the British Isles, and then onwards to Australia and Central Asia. Every page is overflowing with fascinating ecological facts, romantic tradition, natural beauty, and his sharply observant, delighted writing style. I imagine Deakin himself must have been one heck of a teacher.

With fluid ease, as if exploring the tributaries of a wooded river, he introduces the greenman of English folklore; artists such as Nash and Wolseley; poets like Ted Hughes; walnut-gatherers in Kyrgyzstan; and aboriginal fruit-pickers in Australia. His international cast, linked by a web of shared botanical knowledge and friendship, reveal the shared traditions of woodland. Each of them experience it in his or her own way – the journey through the Australian bush in search of fruit is very different to the image of a group of lepidopterists gathering in the Essex darkness to look for moths – but there are common themes. Time – freedom – knowledge – community – mythology.

And interspersing the descriptions of woodland with references to his artist friends ensures that you experience his travels in a very visual, and at times almost metaphysical way. In the Australian section, for example, I was very much reminded of the surreal visuals of the 1971 film “Walkabout”; a series of images punctuated by Wolseley’s charred, grey-brown visions of the bush. In the sections talking about the wild walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, it was as though I was reading about one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s dream-like experiences. The descriptions of the stone and wooden henges in Britain are rich with visual ritual – patinas of history layered over one another in rock and wood, as people commemorated the dead or celebrated the living for thousands of years. And in talking about David Nash’s wooden boulder, Deakin writes:

I sense that perhaps Wooden Boulder has become an alter-ego for Nash: it’s unfolding story part of his life, the restless thing itself an embodiment of his soul….There is a mythic feel to the story of Wooden Boulder. An artist turns a tree into a boulder, which miraculously floats and swims its way over many years towards the sea, where it rolls over like a seal and seems to disappear.

Sitting side by side with that poetic sense of the importance of woodland are very practical explanations. He talks about Nikolai Vavilov (I’ve just been learning about Vavilov centres as part of my environmental studies A-level, so that was exciting), the evolution of the domestic apple, the reason leaves change colour in autumn and the way forests marshal humidity. Which means that your mind is constantly stimulated – a breakdown of photosynthesis here, descriptions of grieving birds there…what a treasure trove.

“When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw”, “Come back, oh, come back. It was a song of heartbreak.”

The ready comparison which kept rolling about as I made my way through Wildwood (much like David Nash’s elusive wooden boulder) is to Ted Hughes’ poetry, which Deakin refers to on a number of occasions. Hughes is never just writing as a poet – his verse is layered with identities and visions. He is a naturalist; an anthropologist; a seer; a bird; and a lover. It gives his writing a sense of being suspended above time, and lends Hughes as poet a kind of eternal wisdom. Deakin feels the same, somehow. All of life is reflected in these pages. If anyone could convince you to immerse yourself in nature and its preservation, it’s Roger Deakin.

“Death of an Avid Reader” by Frances Brody

I came across Frances Brody on Tales from the Reading Room a couple of weeks’ ago, and had an inkling she might offer a welcome spot of light relief. I’ve raced through Death of an Avid Reader over the past few days – it was just what I hoped it would be; a cosy, pleasurable whodunnit with some splendid characters.

This is one of the most recent novels in an established series, but Brody gets you up to speed quickly, and with ease. Kate Shackleton is our heroine: a former VAD Nurse who lost her husband during the First World War, she now works as a private detective in Leeds with her stalwart friend Mr Sykes. As the novel opens, Kate is asked by one Lady Coulton to track down her daughter, Sophia, born out of wedlock many years ago and raised by the younger sister of Lady Coulton’s nanny. Lady Coulton had received sporadic updates about her child, until they stopped in 1911 – all she knows is that Sophia was raised in Scarborough, and that her adoptive parents were fishmongers.

The plot thickens when Kate is then asked to attend a blessing at Leeds Library, where she is a respected member of the board – apparently the basement has been the victim of hauntings for many years, and the deputy librarian has summoned a local priest to rid the place of any evil spirits. When Kate heads to the library to meet the the chosen priest on a cold, miserable night, she stumbles across the body of her friend, Dr. Horatio Potter, sprawled in the basement beneath a pile of books. Her search for Sophia becomes embroiled in the ensuing murder investigation, and the story swiftly becomes populated with thieves, lawyers, academics, missing girls, and, naturally, a monkey.

The novel gallops along at an enjoyable pace, and the characterisations and visual details are excellent – “She bustled towards me, being a person who walks like a crowd, dangerously swinging her string bag full of borrowed books into the thigh of a passing businessman.” It doesn’t quite have the nail-biting denouement of an Agatha Christie, or the wonderful, period madness of Gladys Mitchell, but still, I found myself returning to Kate’s quest eagerly at the end of each day. It is, essentially, a very comfortable book – the novel equivalent of sitting by a roaring fire with a buttered crumpet. And that’s not to detract from the skilful plotting – Brody links the two mysteries superbly. The true test, I suppose, is that I’ve just ordered the next book in the series: I very much look forward to following Kate on another adventure soon.  Death of an Avid Reader

Scotland’s Native Woodland

One of the things James Rebanks touches on in The Shepherd’s Life is the sustainability of his type of farming. In contrast to other methods promoted in this country which are essentially dependent on scale, Rebanks’ focuses on preserving historic practices; only keeping as many sheep as the grassland can take; and ultimately, protecting the productivity of the area for future generations. As is made so abundantly clear, his entire system is built on sustainability and longevity – it’s working with the land, not taking from it.

I thought of George Monbiot frequently as I read The Shepherd’s Life, and wondered (with some trepidation) how a conversation between the two of them might play out. It is certainly very easy to see the value in what both of them are saying. Sheep farming is a much loved part of our national heritage; the animals may hail from Mesopotamia originally, but it feels like a very British undertaking. It is certainly also true that most of us have an artificially sanitized idea of what farming (and consequently food production) entails, but I don’t think many would dispute the importance rural economies have to our sense of national identity. The dry stone walls; the shepherds’ crooks; the chalk grassland and rolling hills dotted with grazing animals – they are quintessentially British scenes. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is probably the first song most of us learn to sign as children. Hundreds of thousands of us head to the countryside during public holidays to soak up that bucolic atmosphere. Which is, of course, in part why agri-environmental schemes have been established – to reward landowners who manage their land in such a way as to preserve its environmental, historic and cultural importance.

At the same time, and as George Monbiot argues, the scale of it has got to be better controlled. Huge swathes of our countryside are given over to sheep farming – the scale of which, arguably, causes critical soil erosion, the suppression of woodland and shrub growth (which exacerbates flooding), and the creation of something akin to a rural wasteland. As he put it so pithily in one article (link below), Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. A lot of us love the bowling greens, but it must of course be true that our landscape would look very different if its uses changed.

He also has plenty to say about highland deer. Such as, for instance, the fact that fifty per cent of the private land in Scotland is in the hands of 432 people – many of whom use it for grouse moors and deer stalking. As a result an artificially high number of Scottish deer is maintained, grazing the land to the roots. Again it defines the landscape, and has a considerable impact on Scottish wildlife.

A survey of Scotland’s native woodland has been undertaken over the course of the past seven years by a group comprised of the Forestry Commission Scotland, Scotland Natural Heritage, Woodland Trust Scotland, and Scottish Land & Estates, amongst others. They have found plenty to be concerned about, including the fact that more than half of Scotland’s native woods are in an unsatisfactory condition, and that since the 1970s, more than 14% of Scotland’s irreplaceable ancient woodland has been lost. This is a major issue – not only in terms of the environmental impact (thinking particularly of biodiversity; carbon sequestration; flood protection; and clean air) but also economically, considering the importance of the national timber industry, and of course, the fact that Scotland’s stunning landscape is one of its major draws for tourists.

What’s fascinating about all of this is that it is not development which is predominantly to blame for the loss of woodland, as one might expect. Instead, the group have identified that the main problems are failed regeneration, climate change and overgrazing. Indeed, 86% of Scottish woods suffer high or medium damage as a result of grazing by herbivores.

As a result of this study, recommendations have been passed to the Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Strategy team, some of which appeared in the new Biodiversity Route Map to 2020. However, there still needs to be a commitment from the Government to embed these into official policy. The Woodland Trust is campaigning to ensure these recommendations are enshrined, and to ensure that six further, key actions are incorporated (including halting further loss, and the restoration of at least 15% of the degraded ancient woodland).

The Trust is asking anyone who lives in Scotland to get in touch with their MSP, to make sure that these recommendations are crystallised into policy. More information is available on their excellent website: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/

And for the non-Scots among us, the Woodland Trust would also love to hear what you think about how to prioritise responses to this study: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/tell-us-what-you-think

There are always going to be conflicts in the way in which we use our limited land resources; the best we can hope for, perhaps, is balance, and sense of communal responsibility. Which means that when we have an opportunity to make sure that governments actually implement positive change, we have to seize it.


Articles referred to:




“The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” by James Rebanks

James Rebanks (well known to his Twitter followers as @herdyshepherd1) shepherds Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, in an area which has been home to his family for countless generations. The Shepherd’s Life is his record of that world; one which is tramped across by droves of tourists like me every year who have, post-Wordsworth, viewed it through a very different lens to the families who work there. Part family history; part diary; part portrait of an ancient and still-mysterious way of life; and part lesson on the importance of seeing our countryside as more than just an aesthetic treasure, this is a hugely enjoyable, and often humbling, read.

Rebanks mentions the Odyssey early on as one of the few works of literature he took to as a child (I remember loving the bit about Odysseus and his men clutching to the bellies of his giant fat sheep to escape the One-Eyed-Giant’s Cave), and his own story has echoes of Odysseus. Like Homer’s mercurial hero, Rebanks is a man who is bound to his home by an unbreakable cord. He is “hefted” to the fells, and needs the passing of the seasons and the proximity to his animals to feel like himself. As he tells us the arch of his life – from a childhood spent working with his father and grandfather; the troubled years spent at a school he leaves with no qualifications; the first, difficult years of working with his father on the farm; and eventually his spell at Oxford University – Rebanks lays out before you his rock-solid sense of self. Like any wandering hero, he closes the book with nostos, a declaration of self-knowledge and that fierce sense of belonging – This is my life. I want no other.

He doesn’t romanticise the difficulties of shepherding in the least – there are heart-breaking descriptions of the devastation wrought by foot and mouth disease and its mishandling, for example, images of blood, loss and grief – but it’s impossible not to feel an envy for such a bond with a place. There can’t be many people who can claim to come from such a rooted family and profession, but he explains those ties to his farm in the most accessible, thoughtful way – and, after a brief spell in London, with an understanding of why the rest of us head for the hills whenever we can:

I didn’t know anyone in London, and I never wanted to be there. This was not how my life was meant to be, but needs must. It was as if the gods were showing me how tough everyone else’s lives were, and what I had left behind. I understood for the first time why people wanted to escape to places like the Lake District.

Modern life impels us to travel; to find work far from home; to accumulate and spend. Many of us (myself included) are almost entirely detached from the reality of where our food comes from (as an aside, this is a fantastic piece on that idea: http://www.monbiot.com/2015/10/05/on-bullshit/), and the management of farmland and its consonant policies are, Rebanks says, handled by an urban government. In that context – and with things like rewilding; climate change; and conservation in mind – Rebanks springs from the page like a hybrid, ancient/modern prophet; one who tweets about shepherding, whilst carrying the torch for an egalitarian, physical, historic profession. Again, this comes across as a kind of obvious wisdom rather than any sentimental idea of rural living – but as he says, just once, we may well need to reacquaint ourselves with these kinds of skills if we can’t find a way to moderate our extractivism.

Running through the book like a spine of steel are three generations of Rebanks men: our author; his father (known to the family as The Loose Canon); and his grandfather, whom he idolises. All three of them share an unshakeable work ethic and moral code; if a neighbour needs help with his sheep, it’s given without question. If it turns out that a man has overpaid for a tup or a ewe at a fair, then the money must somehow surreptitiously be returned to him at the first opportunity, without anyone losing face. There is a brilliant description at the beginning of the book when it’s time for “the gathering”, and all the shepherds in the area turn up with their dogs at 5 am one morning to move the sheep from the fells – it’s described like a military campaign, with every woman, man and sheepdog working hard for the good of the community and to maintain personal pride. It’s stirring stuff, but none of it is sugar-coated – the three Rebanks men are hot-tempered, intelligent and stubborn, and often argue over what’s best for their land. Arguments aside, the book reads like a love letter to those two titanic figures in his life – they will, Rebanks is sure, take on the mythic qualities of the men and women in their family who have gone before them, and their stories will still be told by generations to come, in the oral tradition of their community (there’s Homer again, creeping in).

She [Rebanks’ grandmother] loved to talk about him after he had died. And he glowed in those stories, like some great dead king.

The language is another of the book’s great pleasures. Rebanks explains that the commands used by a shepherd in the Lake District today would be recognised by a shepherd in Sweden; in the same way that You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. It is rich, practical, and full of history. I love the idea of being “hefted” to a piece of land (a lamb is hefted when it becomes attached to an area of upland pasture); the writing is full of references to tups, ewes, stints, mowdies, and gaeblics. Neil would generally elect to spend a holiday in the UK rather than abroad, on the grounds that there is already so much to explore here – and this certainly proves his point. It’s so easy to march across the countryside without listening, and remembering to look for something other than a pretty view. What Rebanks demonstrates so beautifully is that there are ancient parallel universes on own small island; entirely “foreign” ecosystems, languages and cultures which have been living side by side for centuries, without really recognising one another. I sincerely hope his world survives for another six hundred years, hidden in the fells.